The Man Who Restored the Rarest Map in Brooklyn

01/26/2011 8:58 AM |

Jonathan P. Derow with The Map

  • Jonathan P. Derow with The Map

Last week, a much-passed around Times article discussed the discovery and restoration of a “Ratzer Map” in the holdings of the Brooklyn Historical Society: it’s an extraordinarily rare, ca. 1770 English map of New York City, including a large chunk of “Brookland”. Starting today, that map goes on public display until Friday, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily, after which it will be packed away, awaiting a proper exhibition space, which could take more than a year. We caught up with Park Slope resident Jonathan P. Derow, who restored the map for BHS.

What kind of condition was the map in?
This map, relative to anything I’ve worked on from any time period during my 20 years in conservation, was in very rough shape. As a conservator, the hardest—and scariest—issue to deal with is fragility, and when I first saw the map it was in extremely fragile condition. This was due to a combination of factors: the shellac on the front, the cloth backing, and the acidity of the paper. Working on something you’re afraid to touch is a challenge.

Was the restoration, like, a two day job? Or a two year job?
Twenty-seven minutes. No, actually I worked on the piece for about 3 months, though not constantly. There’s a fair amount of waiting around involved in paper conservation. The map was soaked in an alkaline bath for about four days, during which I changed the water occasionally. The inpainting took a solid week, as the cracks and losses were extensive.

Is that normal for a document this old?
The amount of time spent conserving something depends less on the age of the piece and more on its condition. There are plenty of maps of this age that were maintained in better condition and would require only limited conservation.

How did it feel, as a Brooklynite, to do this work?
As someone who was born in Brooklyn [at Long Island College Hospital] and has lived in Park Slope for the past 20 years, it was a thrill to work on this map.

Were you able to find your house on it?
At the time this map was made, the construction of my building was still a good 150 years off, so no, I couldn’t find my building. Most of Brooklyn was farmland and forest at that time, and there were only a few roads outside of what is now Brooklyn Heights. The farmland is very beautifully drawn, with tremendous variation in the way the fields are depicted. It would be interesting to know what was grown where, but there’s no key to indicate.

What are some of your favorite things on the map?
I love that there were large coastal areas marked “oyster banks”. Imagine living in NYC and going down to the shoreline and collecting oysters! That concept certainly gives you a feeling of how long ago 1770 was, and how much our city has changed. Today, nobody’s collecting anything from the shoreline and putting it in their mouths. I hope.

What do you think visitors should look out for?
Have a look at Governors Island: in 1770 it was also called “Nutten Island”. Was that early Brooklynese for “Nothing Island”?